Film Review: “21 Jump Street”

by Jason LeRoy on March 16, 2012

Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in 21 JUMP STREET

starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Ice Cube, Rob Riggle, Nick Offerman, Ellie Kemper, Jake M. Johnson, Chris Parnell

written by: Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill

directed by: Phil Lord and Chris Miller

MPAA: Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence

There is a moment at the very beginning of 21 Jump Street, a new comedy very loosely inspired by the Johnny Depp-starring police procedural of the late ’80s, that is so incredibly funny, I became convinced the rest of the movie was doomed: during a prologue about the high school experiences of our two protagonists, Schmidt (Jonah Hill, debuting his new slimmer self) is shown walking off a school bus in full angry-young-man Eminem regalia: that once-ubiquitous bleach-blond Caesar cut, white t-shirt, metal beaded necklace, baggy jeans, and the saddest, most confused stare since…the last time you saw Jonah Hill.

As an image, this is not only immediately recognizable, but it taps into a cultural zeitgeist that has yet to be properly lampooned in a movie. It is an extension of that great moment in Can’t Hardly Wait when the white teenage suburban hip-hop enthusiast was finally introduced to the annals of cinema via Seth Green’s character. And, of course, there is the added factor of Hill himself, who has become Hollywood’s go-to young actor for playing disaffected, disturbed, yet vulnerable male comedic roles. Just the site of him in this culturally specific drag is beyond words. Of course his character would have been an Eminem fan, trying (and failing) to appropriate his defiant bravado.

After the prologue, which also introduces Jenko (Channing Tatum), a handsomely cocky yet utterly brain-dead jock who bullies the socially inept Schmidt, I threw up my hands and thought, There is just no way this will get any funnier. It blew its wad during the prologue. That was fun while it lasted. And then, to my extreme surprise and delight, it did. It got even funnier. And it remained extremely funny until the credits rolled. And even then, it was still kinda funny. I am absolutely shocked to report to you that 21 Jump Street is not only the funniest movie to come out so far this year, but it may turn out to be the funniest movie all year. It is the first film since Bridesmaids to make me laugh until I was both queasy and headachey.

Back to the story: years after high school, Schmidt and Jenko reunite when they both enroll in police academy. Jenko hasn’t gotten any better at written tests, so he begins exploiting Schmidt’s academic aptitude under the guise of friendship. They become partners and are first introduced to the police force as bicycle patrol, but when that immediately backfires, they are reassigned to a new location: 21 Jump Street, an undercover operation where young-looking police officers are sent into high schools to pass as students while investigating criminal activity. Jenko is psyched to relive his high school glory days, but Schmidt is filled with dread.

There’s just one problem: when they arrive at their assigned high school to investigate the distribution of a synthetic drug called HFS (an acronym for “Holy Fucking Shit,” which is what it makes you say), they discover that the social order has changed: dumb lunkhead bullies like Jenko are now considered uncool, while oddballs like Schmidt live like kings. Jenko is flabbergasted, accurately blaming this paradigm shift on Glee. While Jenko is forced to slum it at the bottom of the food chain, Schmidt quickly finds himself befriending Eric (Dave Franco), the earthy-crunchy coolest guy in school – who happens to be connected to the HFS ring.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are superlatively perfect foils. Hill is predictably strong; he has yet to make any major career missteps, and between this triumph (which he co-wrote with Michael Bacall, the screenwriter of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) and his recent Oscar nomination for Moneyball, he continues to skyrocket. But the real surprise here is Tatum, who has never been better or more perfectly cast. Some have suggested that it’s merely a case of a wooden actor finding a comedy that suits their weaknesses (see: Denise Richards in Drop Dead Gorgeous), but having also enjoyed Tatum’s likable work in The Vow, I’m willing to say that he might actually be the real deal. This will likely prove to be a breakout moment for the very good Dave Franco, brother of James; it could be his Pineapple Express. Brie Larson gives a surprisingly layered performance as Schmidt’s love interest, Molly. And of course the film is lousy with excellent comedy actors like Ellie Kemper, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle, Jake M. Johnson (New Girl), and Chris Parnell in supporting roles.

Directed by the team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs), 21 Jump Street is stunningly potent comedy. The writing is precise and targeted and lean. The ball never drops; there aren’t really any bits that don’t work. It remains consistently funny and energizing, with a handful of well-done action sequences that are surprisingly riveting. And it makes excellent use of the perennially fascinating fantasy of getting a high school do-over. 21 Jump Street is a reference-quality film for perfectly executed comedy.

21 Jump Street opens nationwide today.

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